Shoulder pain can arise from a multitude of places—from joints, muscles, tendons, and bursa in and around the shoulder region as well as from more distant locations like the neck, upper back, or even referred pain from the gall bladder. The onset of shoulder pain is highly variable as it can arise without an obvious cause or be related to a specific mechanism of injury such as a work or sports injury. Shoulder pain can also occur as a result of repetitive trauma over time, such as a job requiring overhead reaching. Neurological injuries such as stroke or a pinched nerve in the neck can cause shoulder pain as well. Experts estimate that as much as half of the population experiences shoulder pain each year, though many people often decide to “just live with it” and therefore, don’t seek treatment. However, shoulder and neck disorders do account for 18% of disability payments for MSK pain.
These following factors contribute to shoulder pain, either alone or in combination with each other:
- Inflammatory conditions: Tendonitis, bursitis (the bursa are the fluid-filled sacs that lubricate the surrounding tissues), osteoarthritis (the “wearing out” kind), and rheumatoid arthritis (the autoimmune kind). Inflammatory conditions are a common cause of shoulder impingement (see below).
- Excessive Motion: Instability can arise from tearing of the joint capsule, tendons, and/or ligaments that become lax after healing. The terms “strain” and “sprain” refer to tears of muscles and/or tendons (strains) vs. ligaments (sprains). Trauma typically results in instability in one direction vs. congenital (or “born with”) problems where instability can be multi-directional. This can result in a subluxation and/or a dislocation of the shoulder.
- Limited Motion: This occurs when the joint capsule and ligaments are tight and restrict freedom of movement. This can happen after prolonged immobilization (use of a sling) and can result in impingement and/or “frozen shoulder” (adhesive capsulitis).
- Muscle Weakness/Imbalance: The muscles in front, on top, behind, and those that connect from below must be in proper balance for the ball and socket joint of the shoulder to function properly. Weakness in any of these muscles can alter the normal balance and result in shoulder pain due to poor, inefficient shoulder motion. A common example of this is forward head posture with shoulder protraction (forward, rounded shoulders) that many of us “suffer” from as a result of using electronics (smartphones, computers, television). Overtraining of any of these muscles (like the chest muscles), stroke, or pinched nerves can also alter muscle balance.
Impingement is a common cause of shoulder pain that arises from swelling or inflammation from the tendons and/or bursae. Here, the ability to raise the arm is limited. Chiropractors are trained to diagnose and treat shoulder conditions using the standard approaches like mobilization, exercise, ice, job modifications, and anti-inflammatory measures (modalities and nutritional approaches), as well as those unique to chiropractic such as shoulder joint manipulation, which can reduce impingement.
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